Saturday, 4 August 2012

Caverns of the Snow Witch playthrough

Written by Ian Livingstone, Artwork by Gary Ward & Edward Crosby

Here's an interesting thing - I wrote up this post a few days ago, and I'm only posting it now. This is because today I'm hiking over to London.

Why? Well, it's nothing to do with the Olympics, before you guess at that - I doubt I'd get past that massive electrified wall that cost £80m to build and is bigger than the Berlin Wall anyway! (remind me again, our dear prime minister, why we can afford this but you still want to cut unemployment benefits?) Nah, instead I'm off for something else, which I may post a little more on in the next few days, if you're good.

But yeah, I'm posting this while I'm on the move (yay for my amazon Kindle), so I've had to change my playthrough order a little. Instead of Beneath Nightmare Castle, this playthrough is of Caverns of the Snow Witch, which is another of the games I never got a chance to play as a child. Not sure why, I'm sure it was just down to there having been other books I chose instead. Hell, I chose Island of the Lizard King over this when I was a kid... I need to find a copy of that, too. The system seems to be the standard FF bunch of skill, stamina and luck, without any additional stats or any differences (of which I have rolled up 7, 17 and 11, respectively - yeesh, low skill rating there. This won't end well), and the story seems to be pretty standard as well. Within the Icefinger Mountains, the Snow Witch is plotting evil things. So I need to go there and put an end to her nefarious schemes, preferably with a stern application of axe to head.

As the book starts, I am in the employ of a trader named 'Big Jim', whose caravans are travelling into the frozen north in order to barter with the locals. On the travel, we stumble across a small village which seems to have been butchered by a large creature, possibly a yeti. Big Jim offers me a bag of 50 gold to kill the beast. Fifty? Is that all? Come on mate, be a little more generous than that! I'd earned that much in my first hour or trudging through Deathtrap Dungeon! I return to the scene of the chaos in order to track down the beast. Following its tracks, I come to a crevasse in the mountainside. I decide to go around it, where I stumble across a mammoth. The mammoth then tramples all over me, because it has a skill of 10 and I have a mere 7.

Not pictured - trampled adventurer
Wow. Dead in two pages. That has to be some kind of record. Re-roll, then. This time, I re-roll a 7 on skill.... sod this, re-roll again. I get an 8 for skill.... These dice hate me. After changing dice and rolling once again, I finally settle on the last result, which is a skill of 9. Stamina of 19, luck of 11. Back we go, then. Rather than go around the crevasse, I head over a narrow ice bridge, and have to test my luck to avoid falling off to an almost certain death. Once I step off the bridge, I am beset by large white wolves, who I dispatch without too much trouble thanks to a lovely non-sucky skill rating.

I stumble through the snowfall when a blizzard starts up. Rather than giving me a series of Warcraft games, this blizzard is more likely to shear the skin from my bones, so I opt to dig a makeshift cave to shelter in. The book instructs me to then eat 2 whole meals to keep warm, but not to regain any of the damage I took from the wolves earlier. Oh, how lovely, I see that this is going to be one of those 'punish the player' type of books after all. Managing to stumble across a hut, I barge on in and steal the poor hut dweller's most prized possessions (namely a warhammer and a spear), even going as far as to eat his porridge (but choosing not to sleep in the bed). I have no hesitation to do this, because I'm a ruthless git. I feel even less guilty about this when I follow the hut dweller's footprints through the snow, only to discover that he has been trailing the same beast as me - only not quite as skilfully, as he is torn apart by the brutal yeti.

The savage yeti
This is a bloody close fight, and really nasty. It has a build-up that asks if I have a spear (I do) and if I have frostbite in an arm (I don't), which gives me the impression that there's a lot of factors that could result in instant death. No matter how well I try, my stamina plummets to 4, but I'm barely able to scrape through a victory. Being that this is the wizard books version, it gives me a potion to fully restore my stamina (I don't remember if the original versions had these or not) which I chug down frantically. Can I just say again... fifty gold? For this? I should be getting at least three times that! Fifty gold maybe for the yeti's hide itself on its own, but for killing one, I should be showered with wealth, adulation and wenches.

Oh yeah, remember that poor man who's lying bleeding to death in the snow as a result of being a yeti chew-toy? Well, he has a monologue to deliver to me first. He tells me of the snow witch, who is planning to entrap the world in an eternal winter. Thankfully the man has marked the entrance of her crystal caverns, which apparently hold far more treasure than that pathetic 50 gold pieces I've been offered so far. Normally I wouldn't care, because when this kind of things happen, we have four plucky earth kids and a lion who take care of things (don't expect too many Narnia references in this blog post - if you actually read much of Lewis' apologist christian work, it's pretty clear that the White Witch is either symbolic for the mythical Lilith or, if your interpretations are especially cruel, the Jews). So I guess without any lions around, it's up to me to save the world, again.

The lions are on holiday, it's down to me to save the world
Anyway, having put his death scene on hold for about ten minutes so that he can give a dramatic monologue, the man then dies and I press on in my adventure. I'm lucky enough to avoid an avalanche (I wonder how quickly these adventures would end if you failed your luck rolls frequently), and I soon arrive at the entrance to the titular Caverns of the Snow Witch. Which means we're well and truly into good ol' dungeon crawler territory.

I head left at the t-junction and decide to casually stroll right past one of the elven guards, who doesn't seem to object to me strolling into the dungeon at all. I'll have to remember this if I ever need to break out of prison - just nod to the guard and walk past casually. Given that taking the left corridor has served me well, I decide to keep at it by following the next left turn, but this instead results in my falling into an ice pit and taking some damage. So I'm stuck in the pit for a while, until a pair of goblins decide to pop along and throw me a rope. I climb out of the pit, whereupon the goblins decide to take me prisoner. While it may have been a good idea to sneak into the Witch's lair under cover as her prisoner, the book makes it quite clear that I will die if I do, so I opt instead to break open a can of kung-fu on these gobbos. After punching them repeatedly, I head back down the tunnel, presumably being quite careful to step over the ice pit this time.

The cave opens up into a puzzle room. There are two small pools in the room. One contains a spear, the other contains a sword. A frozen orc lays in the room, pointing at the sword. I find a poem carved on the wall telling me to choose one of them, "Sword or spear, strength or fear, how will you choose, win or lose." Right, we obviously need to pick one of these, and the riddle there is no help. The biggest clue is the orc, who could either by pointing towards the sword as if to say "I should have chosen that, but I did not and now I'm dead" or "That sword has done this to me, so do not choose it". But there's no indication as to which is which. The only real clue I have is that 'spear' kinda sounds like 'fear'...

And because the Green Lantern is chosen for his ability to overcome great fear, I choose to pull the spear from the pool. Immediately my mind is assailed by terrifying images and horrific scenes, which cause me to lose a skill point. Remind me never to base my decisions on comic book characters again. I instead give up and search through the orc's backpack, where I find a stuffed rat (anyone got any ideas why the orc has this in the first place) and some mouldy bread. The book asks if I want to eat mouldy bread... I can't think of any reason that I should do something like this, so for a laugh I decide to nom on some mouldy bread. As I do so, the bread crumbles to reveal an iron key!

I abandon this pointless and silly puzzle and head down the corridor, discovering a minstrel who is playing his harp and mourning that none of the foolish monsters in this dungeon appreciate his music. I leave this strange and silly man, and find my way into a large cavern which seems to double as a temple. There's a large number of the Snow Witch's minions bowing to her statue in worship, and I decide that the most convenient way through is to join them. My luck seems to run out at this point, because they immediately notice I'm not singing, and start to gang up on me. I can't fight them all off, so they drag me towards the centre of the temple and sic an ice demon on me. Even though it has ice breath, I'm able to crush it without too much difficulty and win the fear of the worshippers, who are too terrified to stand in my way.

Oh no Pat Roach, you're a better actor than this!
Sticking with my 'keep going left' plan, I eventually find a dwarf who has fallen down a pit. I help him out of it, and he gives me a slingshot with a few shots, and the words "beware the white rat", for whatever good that will do. I don't know if this will do any good, but it does feel nice to help someone out. I next arrive in a room in which I'm confronted by the Snow Witch's servant, an old mage with a magic prism who creates two illusions of himself and attacks me. Trusting in my 'choose left' strategy, I attack the left mage, only to find out it's an illusion. I then do the sensible thing that I should have done in the first place, and slash all three with one swing of my sword, and shatter the mage's magic prism. Somehow, this is more entertaining than the very silly evil wizard in the second Conan the Barbarian movie. From the prism, a genie emerges and tells me that it will help me out at some point before it scrapers into the night. You'd think this kind of thing would seem strange to me, but after reading through Eye of the Dragon, this is all perfectly sensible.

From that chamber, I head to the left through a tunnel, which is immediately sealed shut behind me with a portcullis. I find a door, which seems to be my only way out, so I'm rather glad to have that iron key from before, as otherwise I'd be trapped forever. I feel that I'm getting quite close to the end of the adventure, because my next challenge is one of the Snow Witch's personal guards, a crystal warrior. Indestructible unless I have the warhammer that I took from the trapper's hut earlier... oh, how lucky I have that! Yeah, so lucky... Sadly, I'm not quite so lucky in the actual combat, as the Witch's personal guards are far beyond my own combat abilities, and it proceeds to rip me into pieces with its crystal talons.

The damn hammer is broken. 
Slight problem here, to quote from the wiki page... "When you meet the Crystal Warrior the player is asked if they possess a warhammer. If they do, they must proceed to battle the creature. If they don't, they are sent to another section and asked whether they have a Genie friend who can help them to avoid the fight, which means avoiding any loss of time or stamina. So bringing the warhammer along is actually a penalty."

Overall this is a fair but very challenging book. I love the woodcut-style artwork, and although the adventure is fairly linear, you feel that it covers a lot and takes you on quite an enjoyable ride. The sequence with the yeti hunt serves as a nice 'prologue' for the main dungeon crawl, giving it all a nice framing for the adventure.

The difficulty of the combat is fairly steep though, and even though it's fair in general if you make the 'right' choices, making the 'wrong' choice can be very harshly met at times, like when I ran into that happy charming mammoth. I get the impression that this is a book that demands a very high skill rating to be able to survive, though, but it is overall a fairly enjoyable story.


  1. Yup, you need a high Skill (there's an unavoidable Skill 12 opponent later on), and a high Stamina (you haemorrhage the stuff in the later stages of the book), and going the wrong way at certain points is a guarantee of failure.

    1. It's rare to find a book that challenging that's still fun to play. Although I'm still rather peeved about that war hammer. Actually having it with you means that you're actively at a disadvantage >.<

  2. Despite the Livingstonisms, I like this one. The thick-lined woodcut style art is attractive, and I like how the adventure changes as you go along, from a wilderness trek, to a dungeon crawl and then in the end to a race against time. The latter feature is a result of Livingstone taking an existing dungeon -- a shorter version was published in Warlock -- and expanding it, but it works well, making for an adventure that's a bit more varied than most.

    1. It's impressive how some of the books that've been expanded from shorter works turn into very good and strong works (a la this one, House of Hell and so on) while for others, it's a real weakness that holds the book back (like Space Assassin). I guess it comes down to how obvious the padding is - in this book, it adds to the atmosphere, while in others it's too transparent and detracts.

  3. I hate that warhammer thing too. I just assume that I take the spear and not the warhammer. COTSW is fun but full of skill 12 opponents. I also enjoy the fact that you pick up companions later on.

    1. Don't think I got to that point. I was so sure I was nearly at the end, too! :D

    2. The thing with Caverns is that you kill the Snow Witch in the first third of the book, then you find your companions, then you escape the mountain then you wander the countryside looking for a cure to the death spell. I guess the countryside bit was the bit added on when it was expanded.

    3. Well....personally I don't see the harm in lowering some of the opponents' scores yourself, to make it fair according to your own standards. Of course it's a lot easier to do this in a gamebook than in a computer game.

      I know it's like, then you can't say to others "I've beaten the book!" you can only say "I've beaten the book after changing the scores to make it fair!" and then explain just what changes you made ;)

  4. Caverns is one of my favourite Ian Livingstone books for the subtle splitting of the adventure into the 3 acts, as well as the unusual occurrence of the big bad being killed early on. It has the very unique art style too which helps it stand out.

    1. I was so sure I was near the end, and it seems I still actually had far to go! This is one I definitely regret not playing as a kid, and has really set the atmosphere for my BotZ playthrough that'll be up soon. See, I really think that this was the best way to expand a short story.

  5. A great book. Very linear in nature, but it doesn't feel like it is.

    What I loved was the "false endings" - you stomp the yeti, then get told about the snow witch, then the adventure after you leave the caverns. Will this book ever finish??? I was looking for the other dimension with all the other references because there is way too much adventure in a book this small.

    The comparisons and the contrasts with the artwork in the book cf Warlock Magazine is interesting.

    1. Yeah I didn't know till now that a different artist did Warlock! short version. Was it Ian McCaig?

  6. Hey here's an idea if your SKILL score tends to suck; you did mention you rolled 11 for LUCK, right???

    How about swapping your SKILL and LUCK scores around??? ^o^ (no, really, I do that almost all the time. No stated rules against doing so)

  7. One popular online reviewer, reviewed this very negatively and someone seemed to be in complete agreement. They both kind of wrote it off as a cheap expansion of the Warlock! version, but I thought Ian did a good job of expanding it. I liked the friendship with Redswift and Stubb and it was sad when Redswift gave up the ghost.

    I like how this became a fight for survival in the end and I loved finishing atop Firetop Mountain at sunrise. I think this was actually FF's return to greatness after a few less than great adventures.